Tuesday, March 2, 2010

The Politics of Jewish Messianism (My Proposed Dissertation Thesis)

Gershom Scholem famously distinguished between two types of Messianism, a restorative Messianism that sought to reestablish the biblical Jewish State and a utopian apocalyptic Messianism that sought the end of the physical political world as we know it. (See David Biale, Gershom Scholem: Kabbalah and Counter-History pg. 72.) Scholem and most students of Jewish Messianism have tended to focus on the latter type of Messianism. I would like to deal with the former kind.

On the surface, Jewish Messianism has very little to do with politics. In fact, it can be seen as a counter politics. Politics deals with earthly power as it relates to a State of this world. Messianism is usually seen as a rejection of politics and the earthly political State. Instead, it looks for an end to earthly politics through the imposition of a supernatural divine State. From this perspective, there is a vast gulf between political thinkers, such as Machiavelli and John Locke, and political revolutionaries, such as George Washington and Maximilien Robespierre, on the one hand, and messianic thinkers, such as Joachim of Fiore, and messianic claimants, such as John of Leiden, on the other. In my work, I seek to argue that, in fact, that the apocalyptic world of Messianism may not be so far removed from the realm of earthly politics. Whatever various messianic movements may have thought of the politics of their day, it cannot be denied that messianic movements by definition interact with worldly political authorities, make political claims and are thus themselves political movements of this world. 

For anyone not wedded to the Whig narrative of bifurcating the “superstitious” Middle Ages and “rational” Enlightenment and ignorant of the past few decades of scholarship, this should not be surprising or controversial. There is a well-established literature linking in various ways the “religious” messianic and apocalyptic movements of the Medieval and early modern periods with the supposedly “secular” revolutionary political movements of the modern period. To give some examples, Norman Cohn, back in the 1950s, in his Pursuit of the Millennium: Revolutionary Millenarians and Mystical Anarchists of the Middle Ages, sought to portray movements as the Brethren of the Free Spirit, the Taborites and the Anabaptist Munster revolt as the forerunners of modern absolutist movements such as Communism and Fascism. Similarly, though working in the opposite direction, Jacob Talmon, in his Origins of Totalitarian Democracy and Political Messianism: the Romantic Phase, sought to connect modern totalitarian movements, particularly those of the Rousseauan tradition, with earlier religious apocalyptic movements. David S. Katz and the late Richard H. Popkin, in Messianic Revolution: Radical Religious Politics to the End of the Second Millennium, set forth the evolution of medieval Joachimite apocalyptic tradition into the modern apocalyptic movements of today.

I seek to bring elements of all of these works together and apply them to Jewish history. This serves a number of purposes. Even more important to me than placing messianism within a political framework is the continued effort to place Jewish history within the context of the surrounding society. I seek to place Jewish Messianism within the context of similar movements produced in the Christian and Islamic worlds. Furthermore, I propose that Messianism as a political movement offers us a way to talk about Jewish politics. Jewish history has traditionally suffered from not being able to employ the traditional State narrative, for most of recorded history there has been no such thing as a sovereign Jewish State. More important to modern scholars is the lack of a Jewish political tradition. Messianism allows us a backdoor to bring Jews as actors into the political narrative, beyond being the victims of hateful mobs and capricious rulers. Thus helping us move away from the Heinrich Graetz “Jews suffer and think” lachrymose narrative. Furthermore, by dealing with messianic theorists and their confrontation with worldly politics, we can begin to construct a tradition of Jewish political thought. For this reason, I will be discussing not just actual messianic movements such as the Sabbatians, but messianic theorists such as Maimonides and Abarbanel as well.

As a multi-disciplinary project, my work should be of use in a number of fields. This is a work on Jewish history and particularly Jewish Messianism. The models I propose should be relevant to general students of Messianism and apocalypticism. Finally this is also a work of political theory meant to aid in the understanding of how to integrate Messianism as a political phenomenon.


YUngerman said...

"but messianic theorists such as Maimonides and Abarbanel as well."

Make sure, if you haven't yet, to read “Some Ironic Consequences of Maimonides’ Rationalistic Messianism” (in Hebrew). Maimonidean
Studies 2 (1991): 1-8 (Hebrew section). If you did, what did you think of it?

Izgad said...

Not familiar with that one. Thank you for the recommendation.

YUngerman said...

I forgot to mention that the article is by David Berger. As I'm sure you know, anything by him is great.